Country diary: an immense space studded with razor shells

Country diary: an immense space studded with razor shells

The storms in September have dredged from the sea bottom and then flung millions of razor shells across the immense space of this beach. As I kneeled to examine a cluster, half-buried in sand by continued westerlies, I noticed that every shell was an exact analogue of its wider environment. Because each blade bore wavering bands of variant colour crosswise through its length.

The same pattern was manifest not only in the sand ribs that continued across these vast flats, it was there also at the tide edge, where a broad curve of foam, which was turned to tin by the dazzling light, was smeared inexorably eastwards in the breeze and the froth was itself banded into the same highly transient design.

It occurred to me that this one engrained sea shape – fashioned by the unending rhythm of the waves – is a perpetual background to the lives of the waders feeding there. They were sanderlings: dumpy, 100g white balls of ceaseless sea-like energy. The author Peter Matthiessen memorably named them “wind birds” for their wandering lives. He also called them “tireless toy birds” in honour of that hilarious, speeded-up trotting motion of their short black legs, with which each sanderling skirts the edge of the next incoming wave.

There is a curious paradox at work in the sameness of the sanderlings’ environment. They may dwell within this singular tidal pattern all their lives, but it is a landscape that winds around the margins of land everywhere on Earth. Sanderlings that breed in northernmost Greenland can winter in Namibia. Those that nest at the rim of terra firma in Arctic Canada follow this intertidal margin all the way to Tierra del Fuego.

There is barely a beach anywhere on Earth where sanderlings do not feed. I looked randomly through a shelf of field guides – for Hawaii, the Solomons Island, New Zealand, Peru and Papua New Guinea – and in all I found this inhabitant of the line between sand and sea. As I watch them making their wind-blown walks at the water’s edge, I cherish the comedy in this clockwork bird but sense also that there is grandeur in a life so at one with the pulse of the ocean.

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